My first clear thought is, “OK, this is going to hurt.”
I’m standing on a Freebord, a skateboard that’s been modified to ride more like a snowboard. It has two extra wheels on the center axis that spin freely, allowing you to swoop and slide around on the pavement.
This is my very first time riding one, and although I’m gliding down a fairly gentle slope, I’m quickly picking up speed and realizing that I don’t really know how to control the thing. The pavement is getting blurry and I’m getting scared. I’m looking for a patch of grass where I can bail.
“Carve,” a voice behind me shouts. “Lean forward, use your hips!” It’s John Laudin, one of the two Freebord employees who’ve taken me out for a test ride. We’re on a “bunny slope” near the beach, across town from the company’s San Francisco headquarters. On the van ride over, as we strapped on our (required) helmets, wrist guards and other protective gear, I bragged about how I’ve been riding a skateboard since adolescence, and that during my college years in Vermont, I logged dozens of hours on a snowboard. “No problem,” they said. “You’ll pick it right up.”
They had me feeling pretty confident as I stepped into the board’s “bindings” — two hard, plastic toe clips bolted onto the deck — and pushed off. But as soon as I’m pointed downhill, I’m gaining speed and wobbling all over the place. My faith evaporates.
“Carve,” John yells again, and I regain my wits. I lean forward and push hard onto my toe edge. Suddenly, the Freebord snaps into a tight turn. I glide all the way across the road, then lean back onto my heels. The wheels grab on the opposite side, and I finish drawing a giant “S” across the blacktop. Behind me, my chaperones whoop and clap.
My problem — a common one, I learn — is an over-reliance on familiar muscle memories. Instinct was telling me to ride it just like a skateboard: Point the nose downhill and bomb away. But with the Freebord, you have to constantly shift from toe edge to heel edge and carve your way down the hill. If you go straight, it’s much more difficult to control.
This snowboard-like feel is made possible by the two auxiliary wheels on the bottom of the board. The Freebord has custom trucks that resemble the ones found on a longboard, but just inside the trucks on the center line are two thinner wheels (they look like inline skate wheels) that pivot and spin 360 degrees. When you’re standing on the deck, you can kick the nose and tail around, pointing the Freebord in any direction. Shift your weight just a little onto your toes or your heels, and the outside wheels take over, giving you enough traction to hold a line. Throw some weight into each turn and you can make the tail of the board slide. Really bear down on the uphill edge and you’ll slide to a stop.
Thanks to plenty of patient coaching by my companions, I got past the mind games and was taking long runs at a brisk speed by the end of my first afternoon. On my last run, I was pushing the back of the board outward at the end of each turn, gently tail-sliding my way through big, swooping S’s.
The Freebord was invented in the late 1990s by Steen Strand, a grad student at Stanford, who wanted to bring the feel of a Tahoe powder run to the San Francisco pavement. It’s grown into a healthy niche sport. The company now employs five people and runs an international pro team. Riders from around the world post videos online and swap advice on doing tricks. Freebord’s Nick Cruit, one of my guides on my test ride, tells me the sport is particularly popular in places like Brazil and Australia, where snow-covered mountains aren’t as accessible.
Wherever and whenever snow is scarce (more places than usual this year, given the mild winter) a contraption like the Freebord is a suitable distraction for those craving some downhill carving. But the learning curve is a steep one. Even if you’ve spent years on snowboards or skateboards, it will still take a week or three to work up the legs and the bravery to go all-out on one of these. And though the sensation is close to riding a snowboard, the Freebord is something entirely unique, with different rules and different dangers. But if you’re a boardsports aficionado, it’s something you shouldn’t miss.